I love Christmas time when we put up all the strings of lights. I love how each tree along our drive lights up like a beacon, leading us along the way home. I love how all the lights together make our home as a haven from the darkness of the night. I love feeling the sense of security and hope the lights give as we rest in their illumination and warmth.
These little Christmas lights seem insignificant by themselves. If you just put one of them out front, very few people would notice and be able to make their way to the door. But put them all together, by the 10’s and 100’s… even thousands, the path becomes obvious… even glorious. It is only those who deliberately choose to ignore all those lights… that remain in the darkness.
These little lights show us how vital the church, as the body of Christ, is to illuminate the world with His message of hope. When we lay down what corrupts or block the light of God’s Word in our beings, our lives begin to brighten up the world around us. Now imagine all our lives strung together in harmony with God’s Word, each individual life, plugged into the same Spirit. And the Spirit then connecting us all to the power found in Jesus Christ. How wonderfully warm and inviting that would be, lighting the way like a beacon into the comfort the lamp of Christ provides.
But too often, the light of His truth is dimmed and even put out by our own will. That is the desire we have for autonomy, which grieves or disrupts our connection with the Spirit. And that, in turn, disconnects Christ’s power that flows through Him to us. How often have we fooled with that string of lights trying to figure which one is burnt out and why? How often do we just give up and toss the whole line away?
So what disconnects the light of the church, from the power of Christ, making it ineffective? Well, Paul gives us a list, “It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom… or, you shall surely die.” (Galatians 5:19-21 MSG) The reactions Paul’s warnings typically get are ‘it’s so archaic or old school,’ ‘we are better people now,’ or ‘how can something written so long ago, know anything about me today.’ And the big one is, ‘I am free to do anything I want.’ That last one is true; it is also why you are held accountable for your freely chosen responses and have no one to blame for your consequences. Why these responses cause dim lives, damaged hearts, and ineffective churches is because we are not dealing with man’s laws, but God’s holiness.
Let’s take an example from the early church. First, there was a man named Barnabas who saw a need in the church. Motivated to love as Jesus loves him, he sold some land and gave the money to the church. His actions encouraged the believers. Seeing this, another “man named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this together and driven by selfish ambition, sold a piece of land and secretly kept part of the price for themselves. They brought the rest of the money to the apostles and made an offering of it. Peter, discerning his intent by the Spirit, said, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. What caused you to pull a trick like this, and pretend to be giving all when you were not? You didn’t lie to men but to God.” Ananias, when he heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard of it. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him.” A few hours later, his wife, Sapphira, continued the pretense, and died as well.’ (Acts 5:1-8 MSG) I know what your thinking, why such a harsh response? The answer is, you cannot pretend when it comes to God’s holiness. This warning was given from the start, “do not disobey the ‘perfect or holy’ word of God, or you shall surely die.” This couple was, as Jesus described, ‘outwardly respectable or religious, but inwardly full of dead men’s bones.’ (Matt 23:27) In Revelation, Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, “because you pretend to be self-sufficient and needing nothing, not admitting you are miserable, blind, poor, and vulnerable, I vomit you out because you are lukewarm.’ (Rev 3:16) These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. To them, a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy or gain a position of power. (1 Tim 6:5)
This couple, pretending to be something they were not, grieved the Spirit’s work in their lives and disconnected them from the power of Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. The example this left for the church, as the body of Christ, is that our desire for autonomy disconnects us from the source of all life, Jesus Christ. Because God loves us, respecting our free will, He gives us over to the desires of our hearts. In pretending, we blind ourselves to the authority of God’s word, resulting in our choices leading to death, just like was illustrated in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira. Their motive was selfish, not love. The severity of this self-centered response to God still looms out there before us. God, by grace, has allowed a pause in our lives being in jeopardy of eternal death, that is separated from God and all He has promised… like Ananias and Sapphira. But in this grace period, we are allowed to trust in Christ’s death as our representative in bearing the wrath of God towards all sin. In doing so, we enter into His rest from having to suffer through eternal death on our own.
The effectiveness of the church to be a shining beacon of hope to a dying world is not found in our activity, programs, or building projects; it’s not even in our morality. These may all be a part of how we express our lives as believers. Still, neither appearances or giving up wrong behaviors is the fundamental expression of Christ living out His life in and through us… the chief attribute is “that you have love one another.” (John 13:35) Paul wrote, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.’ (Gal 6:2) This law is, “a new commandment I give unto you,” Jesus declared, “that you love one another, as I have loved you.'” (v.34) The key to being effective lights to the world is loving as Jesus loves us. This requires we lay down our desire and standards for love, crucifying them on the cross with Christ, and allow Jesus to live His life through us, and this by faith in the one who loves us and gave Himself up for us. (Gal 2:20) Too often, we hold onto a standard of what we think love is or how others should respond, which causes our light to dim or cease. Jesus’ model for love or Loving kindness, is entirely based on His perfect quality of grace and mercy depicted in His humble obedience to God’s Word, even to the point of death, His death on the cross. (Phil 2:5-8) It is in this same attitude that we love like Jesus.
I look forward to the lights being back up again this Christmas season, especially after this crazy quarantine. We could use some hope. But more so, I look for Christ’s church to become the light of the world it was always intended to be. Us all strung together in unity by the Spirit and plugged, by faith, into the same power that resurrected Jesus Christ from the dead. How cool will it be when we all lay down our lives with Christ, and with unfeigned dependence on God’s Word, He raises us up to live through us, the glorious splendor of the Father! What a day that will be.
Written by David Brown: David Brown is a husband, father, grandfather, Pastor with a Masters of Religious Studies and a Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Religions. Dave is the Associate Pastor of Pemberton’s First Baptist Church.